This post first appeared on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

“Programmatic series of studies”—that’s how one of my psychology professors described research on learning and memory around twenty years ago. Do a study, tweak it, try again. Persist.

I was reminded of that while reading Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better by Tony Bryk and colleagues. After thirty years of constant reform and little improvement, it’s clear that there’s a fundamental flaw in how the education field goes about effecting change. Quick fixes, sweeping transformations, and mandates aren’t working. Ongoing professional development isn’t working either.

What might work much better is a sustained, systemic commitment to improvement—and a willingness to start with a series of small pilots instead of leaping into large-scale implementation. Guided by “improvement science” pioneered in the medical field, Learning to Improve shows how education could finally stop its reform churn. As Bryk et al. write:

All activity in improvement science is disciplined by three deceptively simple questions:

1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
2. What change might we introduce and why?
3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?…

A set of general principles guides the approach: (1) wherever possible, learn quickly and cheaply; (2) be minimally intrusive—some changes will fail, and we want to limit negative consequences on individuals’ time and personal lives; and (3) develop empirical evidence at every step to guide subsequent improvement cycles.
That sounds an awful lot like schools across the country engaging in a programmatic series of studies—a change that likely would result in huge improvements. Even better, the book explains how educators can form networks to grow together. Progress is much faster with pilots in multiple locations, as adaptations for each context generate ideas for further tests.

This application of improvement science seems to be the best possible path forward. But it still suffers from a (perhaps inevitable) problem—you don’t know what you don’t know. An example of this problem is sprinkled throughout the book: The Literacy Collaborative is profiled as a network of educators improving their reading instruction. I don’t doubt that their instruction is improving and student achievement is increasing. I also don’t doubt that even better results could be attained with an entirely different approach.

Shutterstock Photo
Lots of churning makes good butter, not good schools (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

The Literacy Collaborative is dedicated to guided reading, which begins with the teacher selecting a leveled text. As Tim Shanahan has explained, there’s no real research base for leveled readers. The whole notion of assessing a child’s reading level and then selecting (or letting the child select) a text at that level is essentially a farce. Once children are fluent in sounding out words, their reading level primarily depends on their knowledge level, which means it varies by topic.

Neither today nor in the future called for by Learning to Improve is there a way to guarantee that the improvement process begins with the best possible ideas. But improvement science may still be our last best hope. The type of slow, steady progress that would result from widespread application seems to characterize the few examples we have of sustained and, eventually, dramatic improvement, such as in Massachusetts, Finland, and Singapore:

Think of a future in which practical knowledge is growing in a disciplined fashion every day, in thousands of settings, as hundreds of thousands of educators and educational leaders continuously learn to improve. Rather than a small collection of disconnected research centers, we could have an immense networked learning community.

The book’s vision is ambitious—and far more likely to succeed than the reform churn we’ve tolerated for decades.



15 comments on “Stop Reforming, Start Improving”

  1. 1
    Ronnie on September 14, 2015

    In reference to “Stop Reforming, Start Improving” we definitely need to form networks to grow together. The global networking can improve practice and heighten awareness when professionals share knowledge through authentic conversations. Ongoing professional development is beneficial as long as the content is relevant to the purpose and network teams connect to share outcomes. Bottom line, professional development with no follow-up is pointless. More importantly, having pilots in multiple locations conversing about improvements, challenges, and action plans can make a huge impact on schools across the globe. I wonder why we are not conversing with Massachusetts, Finland, or Singapore to understand the formula they are using to improve education. I am a part of the ‘we’ so I need to take action and start networking with Massachusetts, Finland, and/or Singapore.

    1. 2
      Shawn on January 22, 2019

      Ronnie, you make some valid points! Particularly about connecting with educational systems from around the globe that are clearly outperforming the rest. Using proven data to shape professional practice is absolutely beneficial but it must be data-driven! I do like the idea of constantly improving rather than changing everything with reform – unless it is clearly evident through data that other educational strategies are more beneficial. However, due to the dynamic differences between different places in the world change may not always work. Either way, there must be clear planning and – as you said – worthwhile follow-up. Personally, I like to take small pieces from many different teaching strategies and piece them together in a way that works for me, as well as, my students. My teaching practice is constantly moving forward – one piece at a time.

      Interestingly, Bodily et al. (2017) suggest that the continuous improvement process can consume a significant amount of time and many institution’s incentive systems provide greater rewards for other activities, most faculty and instructional designers never engage in the process systematically (p. 120). However, effective educators are life-long learners and do not concern themselves with time. Instead, they focus on constantly improving while knowing that some things will fail, some things will change but at least they will not be stuck using old and unsuccessful pedagogy.



  2. 3
    Jaclyn on September 15, 2015

    I feel that policy makers are constantly trying to reinvent the wheel with education. Many of the policies created are not always backed by sufficient research and do not truly benefit the children at all. The reason policies are constantly being reformed is because we are not using the best research. Also, these reforms are not teacher-approved. Teachers know best what is going on in classrooms and what is necessary for positive change. Yet, the policies are created by people that have not been in the classroom since they were the students. It is not always about creating a new reform, just simply sticking with the previous one in small increments. Sounds very logical to me!

  3. 4
    Bruce Schei on September 15, 2015

    I am not American but I have had similar experience within the education system in which I find myself working. There have been quite a few drastic and dramatic reforms or rather attempts at reform that failed miserably because they were designed solely to please the mass of parents initially but proofing against possible setbacks or backfires were not at all devised. So educators in both classrooms and officials in education offices were both caught dealing with multiple issues that inevitably sprang up as soon as the reforms were enacted. We were all thinking that we could be spending all this time, energy, and financial resources on improving the existing system we came to be able to work with rather than change everything and start from ground up again.
    In order to convince the higher-ups that we can actually mend and improve the existing system, though, we need to show them numbers. Yes, the dreadful statistics that prove to them how much we have worked and how much of what we have worked on actually works. This not only requires (for educators) teacher leadership on the smallest level (classrooms) but also granting and sharing of power/authority to take liberties with choices within classrooms and schools, and also each teacher and administrator recording/documenting success cases to share.
    Thanks for the post.

  4. 5
    Jaclyn on September 17, 2015

    Bruce, I definitely agree with you. It all comes down to showing the statistics (a teacher’s greatest asset and greatest pain!). Reforms are all about pleasing certain people, but do they really benefit the students? Teachers need to take a stand TOGETHER in order to make changes happen. Leaders and non-leaders need to work together to find what works and what doesn’t.

  5. 6
    antonio de larosa on September 19, 2015

    I think it is true and I agree with you that reforming should improve student learning. I do not think reforming benefits the students at all.

  6. 7
    Fatima Djelidi Lakhdar on September 19, 2015

    I feel that improving the system all the time does not necessary do the children any good. For instance at our school, we have not truly taken into account their need to support their native language skills and have, instead, focused on their second/third language acquisition through cumbersome EAL programs and excluding them from fruitful interactions int the class.
    Moreover, changing math program every four to five years without leaving the program to prove its efficiency is quite frustrating. Statistics do not help, on the contrary!
    Reforms seldom please and benefit students and teachers; may be this is something to think about before implementing new expensive reforms.

  7. 8
    Ronnie on September 19, 2015

    Jaclyn, you are absolutely correct, teachers must form networks and work collaboratively together to create a positive change in the system. I think this is where teachers need to exercise their leadership skills and create global networks that can make a positive change in the education system. Trying to reinvent the wheel is creating a hit or miss situation when researched based practices are available. I agree with Bruce perspective too, a collaborative educational system of which power and ideology is shared is much more effective.

  8. 9
    Fatima Djelidi Lakhdar on September 20, 2015

    I agree with you that networks and collaboration are essential tools and means to improve the educational field.Education needs to be interactive, constructive and reflective. I truly believe that we can improve, if we work together and stop following the vertical hierarchy that is still deciding on reforms.

  9. 10
    Michelle Zhang on November 14, 2015

    Jaclyn, I also agree with you that teachers must form networks and work collaboratively together to create a positive change in the system. I truly believe educators exercise their leadership skills and create new networks that can make a positive change in their school education system. Since my school policy has changed to require every student to bring their own laptop to the classroom for using to support the inquiry learning this academic year. Our sixth-grade teachers start to give weekly homework on internet for students, they do their homework on the internet and hand on it by email. We create a Email account for every student and create a grade group for sharing all learning information. Students can get learning resources and contact immediately with teachers. Students do huge networks since this year. Reforming can bring many benefits for improving student learning.

  10. 11
    Tami Bowen on March 22, 2017

    Having been in education for ten years now, I have seen all facets of reform. Teachers are beyond frustrated with the constant shift and movement of content and curriculum along with the next most effective computer learning program we must now implement. What many people may not know is how poorly teachers are being trained on new programs that we are expected to teach to our students. “Teachers cannot be expected to be knowledgeable about all aspects of school reform, subject-matter standards, or professional practice” (Stein, Margaret, & Silver, 1999, p.240). As professionals, we are thrown into a bad situation in which we wish we had more time to research and educate ourselves on before having to appear as an expert for our students as we teach them. Oftentimes, I talk with other teachers about how much educational funding is wasted on poor decision making from the top. Most, if not all programs have little if any research put in to see how effective they really are before rolling them out into our schools. Please stop this madness!

    Stein, M. K., Margaret, S. S., & Silver, E. A. (1999). The development of professional developers: Learning to assist teachers in new settings in new ways. Harvard Educational Review, 69(3), 237-269. Retrieved from

    1. 12
      Tami Bowen on March 24, 2017

      As teachers, if we are required to use specific learning programs, we would like to see the progress from them in regards to their success or lack thereof. Frustration sets in when we are being forced to use a program that shows no data to support that students are actually learning. It seems like teachers have lost so much control in their classroom that we would at least like to feel confident that what we are being required to use, really works and makes improvements in student learning.

  11. 13
    heba heikal on January 26, 2021

    Today’s educational system’s adaptive performance invites teachers to engage with difficulties and possibilities they may not yet have the potential to resolve. Collaboration to do so can be frustrating for some individuals; therefore, they resist the change. Sometimes, bringing people with different perspectives together to solve issues passionately, conflict occurs. Even though it is healthy for the school community to get different perspectives on the table yet, it is crucial to handle the dispute and empower everyone to own the accomplishment process. School leaders have a critical role in praising all teachers’ practices and embracing their diversities. Thus encouraging the process of building a community of collaborative individuals who can positively enhance their school’s improvement.

  12. 14
    Tyler Halverson on May 30, 2021

    This entire post is spot on with what many educators feel as far as educational reform. While I don’t have a plethora of experience in teaching, I have already had many of these same thoughts. Often I’m caught asking why we’re changing from one platform to another or why we are making certain changes. Similar to this blog, I often ask questions like the three that were presented. Many times I feel we make changes in my school, but we don’t consider what the long-term goal is that we’re hoping to obtain. For instance, our district made a decision to go with an online education platform that had rather low ratings. When this was asked about, one of the top comments I heard was the overall cost of this compared to others. What I don’t feel the district took into consideration is the abundance of platforms we pay for which are hardly used. In my opinion, districts need to start at the roots of their school(s) and ask questions before making decisions.

  13. 15
    Maria Zagers on January 28, 2022

    I so so agree. On my little island home, they come up with new ideas and new books and new ways to differentiate to teach the curriculum but no solutions to the problem. Every new school year and January we have to sit in these week-long workshops that are fine and everything but not much-reformed comes from it. Everything goes back to the regular way. and when you try now wow that becomes a problem, because these workshops have to take place because of the educational bureau but not that they are for a change very seldom unless there is money behind it. Much needed reformation at the school I work at the computer lab needs to be updated now years, but instead, we got a gaming room for what?? Esports that’s cool and everything but we need extra computers and an updated computer lab. Which I wonder if we get next year. Reform talk and talk and nothing much coming from it. That’s my two cents about reform.


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